Dr. AIX's POSTS — 27 July 2014


There were no seminars at the Capitol Audiofest yesterday. Gary Gill, the organizer of the show, invited the DC area headphone club to come to the show and set up a bunch of tables in the room that Tom and I used for the seminar room the day before. If you haven’t noticed personal listening has become a very big deal…think Beats, Audeze, HiFiman etc. Most audiophile trade shows now feature an entire ballroom or section dedicated to headphones, portable playback devices, headphone amps and small USB DACs. The headphone business is now worth several billion dollars annually according to the CEA. The accessories category is one of the fastest growing areas in the audio market.

And there is a quest for high fidelity in the headphone segment. However, Beats headphones do not fit into that category. They produce rather poor audio fidelity but they look great and are the choice of celebrities, so there you go. But Beats did reinvigorate the headphone category in ways that no one anticipated a few short years ago. And they reaped huge rewards from their efforts…thanks to the catalyst provided by Monster.

The DC club was a special addition to the CAF. Just down the hall from the seminar room (which was adjacent to the Madison Ballroom where I was set up) was CanMania. Vendors in that ballroom were offering DACs, headphone amps, portable high-resolution players, in-ear monitors and a wide selection of headphones for attendees to audition and purchase. I made my way into that room for a quick survey and saw my friends from A&S and Oppo (yes, Oppo was there with the HA-1 and their new PM-2 headphones).

Clearly, the market for portable audio is huge. And there has been a huge uptick in the number of products that cater to quality conscious consumers of all ages (who else could afford a $2400 portable player like the top of the line A&S unit?) but I think the younger demographic are the ones flocking to the new smaller and better sounding equipment. Of course, we still have the problem of “real ” fidelity when it comes to the source content but that’s an issue we already know about.

At one of the DC Headphone room tables, I spoke to John and Frank about a rather curious arrangement of gear that I noticed on the table. It was a Chord Hugo USB DAC headphone amp with an Astell Kern AK120 Titan MQS Duel DAC Audio System connected by a Silver Dragon Toslink Form Fit Digital Cable….held together with a couple of very large rubber bands! Frank explained that this arrangement was less about a portable listening system (it was never going to fit in anyone’s pocket) but that he uses it as his home music server. The DAC inside the A&S device is really good and Chord does make very high-end gear (I love the look and feel of their equipment) but I wouldn’t spend upwards of $4000 for something I had to hold together with a couple of rubber bands.

[NOTE: Another reader, Chris, came by yesterday with a small transparent plastic box with a complete DIY Wolfson DAC equipped digital music player device that I’m going to build and check out. His setup does just about everything that the Chord and A7S device does…for about $100. Stay tuned]


Figure 1 – An image of the Chord Hugo and A&K player with the digital connection cable.

So I reached inside my pocket and I pulled out the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition Sprint phone that I had been showing off during the show. I asked both John and Frank, “if the audio on this Smartphone is indistinguishable from your Rube Goldberg setup with the Chord and A&S player AND costs around $230 (with a Sprint plan) AND does ALL of the things a state-of-the-art Smartphone does…why would anyone spend 20 times more? And the HTC fits so nicely in my pocket!

They didn’t have a reply…something about the incredible audio quality of the DAC was all I can remember.

Our problems in audio playback are not the delivery devices. Go ahead and take your pick with regards to hardware (DAC, Headphone amp etc) but once we get over the bridge we’re on, the business model for dedicated high-end players goes away. And guess what, we’re already half way across that bridge.

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About Author


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(9) Readers Comments

  1. I have the HTC One M8 from Verizon (so it isn’t the Harman Kardon version) and I use the Neutron player from the Play store.

    While I haven’t listened to music on your version of the phone, I definitely feel fatigue if I listen to it for an hour or more (this happens regardless of the player used) and this doesn’t happen when I use my AK120. Just from that fact alone, the AK120 is clearly better IMO.

    BTW, it took me a full read of the post to figure out what you meant by “A&S”…you mean Astell & Kern, right? I believe it is abbreviated A&K or AK, like they do with their model numbers.

    • I’ll go back and change the A&K to Astell & Kern, the name of the company. The converters are indeed different and the audio handling unique in the Harman Kardon Edition. I just returned from the east coast and experienced great sound through my in-ear monitors the whole way. I wouldn’t recommend spending the extra money for the much more expensive units.

  2. Coming from the viewpoint of someone (now on holiday) using Note 3 to Fiio X3 to Ray Samuels SR71-A to Sennheiser HD-25 1 II I can tell you that there’s big big difference between the audio quality coming straight out of the ‘phone socket and the Ray Samuels. The difference in quality is not just because of the external DAC, it’s because the Sennheiser are being driven properly by the external amp. The not Note 3 does not have the ‘grunt’ (voltage swing and current) to drive the Senns and the output from the Note sounds anemic. The output from the Note, Fiio, Ray Samuels combo easily rivals my home system and it really is fantastic to have this sort of sound quality availabe whilst away on holiday.

    • I did a little looking online about the Ray Samuels SR71-A unit. It’s true that we need really good designs and power to handle the headphones for quality sound. I’ll have to get try your setup…but for now, I have no problem with the simple and great sounding HTC phone.

  3. Mark, I think it’s great you’re building relationships on the portable side: as I’ve advocated previously and I think you already understand, I think there is tremendous enthusiasm and wallets in that space that align with your high quality music efforts. If you could find a way to kickstart or buddy with a portable product that was bundled with your recordings, or recordings by others that you curate as truly high quality, you could perhaps persuade a significant change in these enthusiasts’ budgets for hardware vs music…

    ..and I’m pretty sure you already thought of it, but what if you also considered an IOS and/or Android plug-in to an existing player or a new player that could read and respond to special tag fields to equalize correctly to play back a song appropriately for different situations like on the road (high bkgnd noise) vs at home (low bkgnd noise), for example. That could pull people away from dealing with different song codecs for different needs and instead just have one song codec with situation-specific equalization/convolution profiles, with you as their curator and music provider. I”m rather incoherent on all this, but hopefully you get some of what I’m (poorly) trying to communicate.

    • I like the idea and in fact, have been actively promoting the idea to some engineers. We’ll see how it goes with the labels.

  4. If you’re happy with the sound of the HTC and iems that’s all that matters. The setup I’ve taken on holiday, whilst not truly portable, was transportable and for the first time ever I was able to enjoy my audio and video files on holiday as if I were using my home setup.

    • I’m not saying that there can’t be improvements…but I think the HTC does an incredible job for a one stop solution.

      • So many systems can be controlled by a phone or tablet these days. In many ways, this is fine. But…when do they stop staring at the widget and just listen? Not often enough, and the reason is simple; phones and tablets are in many ways simply TV’s which make calls and connect to the internet. The bright colorful graphics and seemingly sharp images can and do pre-occupy folks when they should just be listening instead if they want the biggest rewards. The single song thing too was banished in the ’60s by Beatles/Stones/Dylan, and has returned with a vengeance. The phone thing also eliminates any frequent tactile relationship with your gear. The whole high-tech thing adds up to some plusses, and some minuses too.

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